Thursday, January 26, 2012

Marx, Engels, Schweitzer and false accusations of homophobia

This is part of an ongoing research project I've been conducting on the various accusations of Marx and Engels' supposed virulent homophobia. The other two entries I've done on this topic can be viewed here and here.


I recently stumbled upon a Wikipedia entry titled "Socialism and LGBT rights." Of particular interest to me was the section, "Marx, Engels, Ulrichs and Schweitzer."

Having already dealt elsewhere with most of the fallacious criticisms raised in the section in question (see the two links at top), I wanted to address one particular argument here, which is the following [my italics]:
Known to both Ulrichs and Marx was the case of Jean Baptista von Schweitzer, an important labor organiser who had been charged with attempting to solicit a teenage boy in a park in 1862. Social democrat leader Ferdinand Lassalle defended Schweitzer on the grounds that while he personally found homosexuality to be dirty, the labor movement needed the leadership of Schweitzer too much to abandon him, and that a person's sexual tastes had "absolutely nothing to do with a man’s political character". Marx, on the other hand, suggested that Engels use this incident to smear Schweitzer: "You must arrange for a few jokes about him to reach Siebel, for him to hawk around to the various papers." However, Schweitzer would go on to become President of the German Labor Union, and the first Social Democrat elected to a parliament in Europe.
The claim here is that Marx wanted homophobic jokes to be spread around about Schweitzer in order to further sully his name.

However, if one actually looks at the letter from which this quote by Marx is drawn, and investigates even cursorily the history and relationship of Schweitzer with Marx and Engels, it becomes painfully evident that the above claim is downright untrue. One can only assume that the author of the above Wikipedia entry is either horribly misinformed and ignorant, or simply has an axe to grind with Marx and/or Marxism and therefore willfully twists the facts in order to buttress his or her argument.

Unable to find the above quote by Marx online anywhere, I took a picture of the relevant page in the Marx-Engels Collected Works. For reference purposes, I also took a picture of the letter in which Engels responds to Marx (the next day), and an explanatory footnote from the Collected Works that I thought useful.

(Click on images below for expanded view).

While it is an indisputable part of the historical record that Marx and Schweitzer were bitter political enemies, there is nothing at all from these letters to suggest that Marx had a homophobic attitude towards him, or that Schweitzer's sexuality affected Marx's political assessment of him in any way.

The first thing that strikes one about Marx's letter is that it was written in 1865, a full three years after the incident in which Schweitzer had been charged with pedophilia. It makes absolutely no sense that Marx would just be brining this up to Engels as if it were a fresh scandal to be "hawked around to the various papers." The Schweitzer scandal had already been in all the papers for years before Marx wrote these words.

Second, we have no idea from the context what "jokes" Marx is talking about here, or whether or not they even relate to Schweitzer's sexuality at all (Marx makes no mention of Schweitzer's "incident" in the letter). I don't know why someone would assume that the only "jokes" Marx would have to spread around about Schweitzer would concern sex. Marx and Engels considered Schweitzer an opportunist, a sycophant, a reformist, and a fool. Certainly there wasn't a dearth of material for these two to laugh about and spread around, that would have had nothing to do with sexual matters. Further evidence of this is that in Engels' letter responding to Marx, he makes no mention of Schweitzer's sexuality, but merely comments along the lines of standing criticisms he and Marx shared of Schweitzers' political behavior and writings. This leads the honest observer to just as much assume the "jokes" are political in nature, rather than personal or sexual.

Finally, upon closer reading of Marx's letter, it is not even clear to me that the "jokes" he is asking Engels to "hawk around" even are about Schweitzer at all. Earler in the letter Marx refers to Schweitzer, but then transitions and brings up an article that Schweitzer had recently quoted, which a footnote tells us was written by someone named Karl Blind. Marx comments that Blind's article -- which had just been published 5 days previously -- was arrogant and self-aggrandizing. It is in the very next sentence that he writes: "You must arrange for a few jokes about the fellow to reach Siebel, for him to hawk around to the various papers."

Judged on the basis of syntax, content, and historical knowledge, it seems much more logical that Marx is actually refering to Karl Blind here, rather than Schweitzer. The fact that Blind's article had just been published a few days prior meant that whatever "joke" Marx thinks he deserves would be "newsworthy" from the standpoint of the "various papers," since it still would have been fresh. At least it would have been much more fresh than a three-year-old sexual scandal that had already saturated the press by then.

Whatever else one thinks of Marx, Schweitzer, or the letter in question, it is self-evident that one cannot honestly draw the conclusion that homophobia has anything to do with Marx's quip. One can assume, imagine, or believe, that Marx is addressing Schweitzer's sexuality here, albeit empirically far-fetched. But one cannot present Marx's homophobia as fact here without being utterly disingenuous.

This kind of sleight-of-hand scholarship is akin to the work of Hubert Kennedy, author of an article titled, "The Queer Marx Loved to Hate." The "queer" is Schweitzer, and it is certainly a fact that he was gay. It is also a fact that Marx did come to hate him. However, it is false to insinuate -- as the title does -- that Marx hated Schweitzer because he was queer, rather than for reasons of political disagreement.

In conclusion, my intention is not to impart the idea that Marx and Engels were infallible or beyond reproach on all questions. They weren't.

But what I am opposed to is dishonesty and misinformation. I am adamantly opposed to people who have a prejudiced political view of Marx and Engels inventing various conspiracies and blemishes in an attempt to cast aspersion on the ideas of the latter two. I am against this then being passed off as scholarly work.

Let us disagree on ideological questions. Let us debate historical and theoretical concerns. But let us remain honest in our appraisal of the facts.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't heard of this before. Good reporting.